At a dinner party last night, a familiar devil appeared in the eye of a friend as they decided to mess with someone else conversationally. It was a simple enough thing, pressing an argument in a slightly nonsensical fashion just to entertain themselves, but that obvious motivation behind it was very plain and very familiar: They were just getting a bit of joy from harmlessly messing with someone.
That devil in my friend's eye was something, though not described by Watson, that I'm sure the observant Sherlockian would have seen in the eye of Sherlock Holmes on many an occasion. Sherlock Holmes found joy in messing with people.
"What the deuce is it to me? You say we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or my work."
Watson writes up his account of that statement with all the viewpoint of a man taken in by Holmes's silliness, believing that Holmes was actually irritated at him for pushing Copernican theory. But if one steps back a bit and slips out of Watson's point of view, it becomes obvious that Sherlock Holmes was just messing with the new room-mate, who had just finished being a little bit fancy by quoting Thomas Carlyle.
"Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done." That phrase "the naivest way" is a sure sign of the prankster at work. Watson was surely using Carlyle to bolster some argument, and Holmes counter-punched by feigning ignorance of Carlyle. And once he had started down the "pretending to not understand" road of conversational sedition, it would not take long until Holmes was denying such basic facts as that the Earth went around the sun, then defending said fact with a slightly goofy brain-attic metaphor.
We don't see Holmes messing with Watson nearly so much once he gets to know him, and Watson to know Holmes . . . or maybe Watson just doesn't report those moments, which probably occurred most when Holmes was bored and not on a case. We do see him pulling tricks on Scotland Yard or clients for his own amusement, though, so we know that particular devil was still in him. But it wasn't an impulse unique to Sherlock Holmes, as I observed last night.
Some of us do enjoy a bit of messing with our friends on occasion, especially when they start getting a bit fancy with the Thomas Carlyle quotes. I would be very curious as to what the conversation and the Carlyle quote leading up to Holmes's feigned foolishness was, as I suspect we'd quickly see what was really going on there.
As it stands, I think many of us have been a bit messed with by Holmes as well over the years, trying to explain Holmes's silly statement about what orbits what with all the investment of a member of a certain political party defending a certain popular ignoramus of the moment.
What? Well, of course I was talking about England's prime minister! Who did you think I was talking about? British politics are all I think about! Etc, etc, etc. To quote Captain America, "I could do this all day." And so, probably could Sherlock Holmes.